Ghetto pensions payments granted by German government

June 11, 2014 by J-Wire
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The German Parliament (Bundestag) has voted to grant payments retroactive to 1997 to current and future recipients of Social Security for work in ghettos, known by the German acronym of ZRBG or more colloquially as “ghetto pensions.”

Julius Berman

Julius Berman

The Chairman of the Claims Conference, Julius Berman, has notified local Claims Conference director Robert Goot of the current situation in the following letter.

These payments will bring a long-delayed measure of justice to elderly survivors who have been waiting for decades for Germany to acknowledge their labor, and who greatly value these payments.

The Bundestag voted to amend the existing ZRBG legislation after years of Claims Conference negotiations about the program. Last fall, we worked to ensure that a solution to attain retroactive payments would be part of the new government’s coalition agreement then being formed. We reached out to Andrea Nahles, incoming Federal Minister of Labor and Social Affairs. “The average age of the people in question is 85 years. It is not necessary to stress the immediate urgency of the necessary legal regulation,” we wrote to Minister Nahles, urging her to take measures so that back payments to 1997 could be approved.

This past February, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced while visiting Israel that her government would seek a way to attain the retroactive payments as soon as possible. There was a strong push from the government of Israel on this issue.  Minister Nahles then introduced the amendment to the Bundestag in April.

Currently about 40,000 Holocaust survivors of Nazi-era ghettos receive these payments. Until the passage of this amendment, most recipients have only been able to receive payments dating back four years prior to the approval of their claims.

The Claims Conference has pressed the issue of implementing these so-called “Ghetto pensions” for years in negotiations with the German government and has been in the forefront of efforts to improve the program. Although these payments, based on the law of 2002 (ZRBG), came into effect as of 1997, overly strict interpretation of the criteria by local German authorities led to the denial of 61,000 out of 70,000 claims.  The Claims Conference also negotiated the separate Ghetto Fund, which provided a one-time payment of €2,000.  Originally, payments under this fund were to be deducted from the pension but the Claims Conference negotiated that (i) the €2,000 payment would not be deducted and (ii) there is no filing deadline for the Ghetto Fund.

When review of the denied pension claims was ordered by the German Federal Court for Social Security Matters in 2009, the Claims Conference pressed for expedited review so people could begin to receive payments as soon as possible. The Court incorporated many Claims Conference contentions in its opinion, deciding that the interpretation of “remuneration” should be broad and encompass, for example, food or any other benefits that workers might have received for their labor. The Court further ruled that such remuneration could also have been paid to the ghetto Judenrat instead of directly to the worker.  The Court ruling also confirmed that the law did not include any age limit for applicants.

However, even after this ruling, survivors could only receive payments dating back four years, at most to 2005, according to the limits of the general German Social Security regulations. In 2012, the highest social court in Germany upheld the four-year limit.

The new law will allow for:

• All Holocaust survivors who currently receive a Ghetto pension will now have the option of the pension re-assessed with a new “start date” of July 1, 1997, regardless of when the original application was first made. This will likely result in an additional lump-sum payment to any survivor whose current pension start date is later than July 1997. 

• Any survivor who now applies for a Ghetto pension for the first time will, if successful, have a “start date” back to July 1997.

• These pension reassessments will apply not only to Ghetto pensions for survivors still living but also to widow(er) pensions.  Non-spouse heirs of those who collected Ghetto pensions during their lifetimes should also benefit from these pension reassessments, but likely only after the cases of living survivors and surviving spouses are handled and succession established.

The complication of this revision to the program is that depending on the recipient’s age, a pension backdated to 1997 might result in lower monthly amounts, the difference of which must be deducted from the lump-sum.  Therefore, it may be advantageous for some people to decline the earlier start date.  Each survivor will be given the option.

With this Bundestag vote granting back payments to 1997, entitled persons can now opt either for (i) a back payment retroactive to 1997, combined with potentially smaller future monthly payments (current pensions have a supplement for each year in which no pension was drawn from age 65 upwards), or (ii) the continued payment of the present higher monthly amount, but without back payment. Letters from the German Social Security authorities will be sent to each of the 40,000 people affected by this change.  The Claims Conference has also worked with the government to ensure that letters will be sent in local residence language, as opposed to the previous system in which letters were sent only in German.  This is especially important as (i) many recipients do not speak German, (ii) the options are complicated and there are financial consequences, and (iii) often family or others will help the survivors with the required paperwork.  Letters should be sent starting in July.     

Although this is not a program administered by the Claims Conference, the fair implementation of this program has been a priority in our discussions with the German government for a number of years. We are gratified that our efforts have resulted in this change that will help the remaining recipients receive payments in keeping with the original intent of the legislation.


One Response to “Ghetto pensions payments granted by German government”
  1. Debra Rubin says:

    Are surviving children of Holocaust survivors entitled to apply for the ZRBG pensions of deceased parents? Is there a minimum amount of time that a Holocaust survivor must have spent in a ghetto, such as 5 years? There are many unanswered questions.

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